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Utah coach has team Boylen over with confidence

Utah coach Jim Boylen has the Utes in the NCAA Tournament in his second season with the program. The fifth-seeded Utes face No. 12 seed Arizona in the first round Friday.

Utah coach Jim Boylen has the Utes in the NCAA Tournament in his second season with the program. The fifth-seeded Utes face No. 12 seed Arizona in the first round Friday.

MIAMI – On the day Jim Boylen became Utah’s basketball coach, four words made Utes guard Lawrence Borha an immediate believer.

It was March 2007, at the news conference to announce Boylen’s hiring, a few days after Utah finished its worst season in a quarter-century. Someone asked about bringing in his own players, and Boylen was lightning-quick with his reply.

“Those are my players,” Boylen said, nodding at the Utes who were in the room.

With that, Borha was sold.

“I never forgot,” Borha said.

Flash forward two years and Boylen and the Utes are champions of the Mountain West Conference and in the NCAA Tournament, a turnaround that few outside of Salt Lake City probably envisioned happening so soon.

“He did his work, believed in us, thought we could win,” Borha said. “That’s when I knew we were going to be a good team.”

The quest to be a great team starts Friday in Miami, where fifth-seeded Utah (24-9) plays 12th-seeded Arizona (19-13) in a Midwest regional matchup. The Utes haven’t won a tournament game since 2005, and there’s no shortage of bracket-experts saying it’s a game where the higher seed is ripe for an upset.

Boylen doesn’t mind.

“I hope they keep pouring it on,” Boylen said. “We’ve been facing that all year. People look at our schedule and said, ‘Holy smokes, you’re nuts.’ But we won 24 games with our schedule. Our RPI was around the top 10 all year. So my kids have been through it all now. They’re battle-hardened. They’re sick of being picked on, sick of being belittled.”

Boylen was a star at Maine in the mid-1980s, finishing second to Reggie Lewis for the North Atlantic Conference’s player of the year award in 1987. From there, he was a graduate assistant for Jud Heathcote at Michigan State, sharing a cramped apartment with two other young coaches named Tom Izzo and Tom Crean, now with Michigan State and Indiana, respectively.

He worked his way from the Houston Rockets’ video room to their assistant-coaching staff under Rudy Tomjanovich, being part of two NBA championships there. Eventually he returned to Michigan State to be on Izzo’s staff, and finally – after years of waiting and missing out for jobs, most notably at Texas A&M and with the Orlando Magic – Utah picked him to be a head coach.

“When Coach came along, he introduced a new system,” said Luke Nevill, Utah’s 7-foot-2 center from Australia. “And last year, you know, it was difficult to get used to it. But we took last year as rebuilding, growing. We had a great summer together.”

Boylen brought the Utes to Miami on Tuesday night – making them the first of the eight teams picked to play here on Friday to arrive. They had a good practice Wednesday morning, then changed into warm-weather attire and hit the tourist-friendly Coconut Grove section of town for a leisurely lunch. A happy team, Boylen hopes, is a relaxed team.

“Only three of the guys on my team, plus me have been there before,” Boylen said. “So I wanted to get rid of that ooh-aah feeling.”

When the Utes – who started their year with a loss to Division II Southwest Baptist – beat San Diego State 52-50 for the Mountain West Tournament title, Boylen began to cry.

“To see them grow, to see them have success – we were picked fourth by some people and fifth by other people in our conference,” he said. “But we just kept believing.”

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